Budd Boetticher is not a well-known director; indeed, even such a knowledgeable critic as Andrew Sarris ranks him among ‘esoterica’. Most critics would be inclined to dismiss him as responsible for no more than a few run-of-the-mill westerns, hardly distinguishable from his equally anonymous fellows—a typical Hollywood technician, a name which flashes past on the credits and is soon forgotten. This would be to misjudge Boetticher. His works are, in fact, distinctive, homogeneous in theme and treatment, and of more than usual interest. He is an author and well aware of it himself; he is lucid about his own films. It is high time critics were equally lucid.
Budd Boetticher’s first contact with the movies was in 1941, when Mamoulian went to Mexico to make Blood and Sand. Boetticher had already been in Mexico some years—he went there to recuperate after an American football season—and while there had taken up bull-fighting, eventually becoming a professional. Mamoulian hired him, as an American and a torero, as the technical adviser on bull-fighting for his film. Boetticher became as enthusiastic about movies as he had about bull-fighting and, after three years as messenger boy and assistant director, made his first film, One Mysterious Night, in 1944. For a number of years he made ephemeral quickies; his prise de conscience as an author in his own right did not come till 1951, when he made The Bullfighter and the Lady. For this film, he changed his signature from Oscar Boetticher Jr. to Budd Boetticher; he himself has recognized it as the turning-point in his career. Even then, it was another five years before Boetticher found the conditions which really suited him. The breakthrough came in 1956 with Seven Men from Now; his first film for Ranown productions, The Tall T, came the next year. During these two films the team was assembled with which Boetticher was to make his most characteristic work: Randolph Scott as star, Harry Joe Brown as producer, Burt Kennedy as script-writer. Seven Men from Now was also Boetticher’s first film to get critical acknowledgement: André Bazin reviewed it in Cahiers du Cinema under the head, ‘An Exemplary Western.’ Boetticher made five westerns with Ranown; they are the core
The typical Boetticher-Ranown western may seem very unsophisticated. It begins with the hero (Randolph Scott) riding leisuredly through a labyrinth of huge rounded rocks, classic badlands terrain, and emerging to approach an isolated swing-station. Then, gradually, further characters are made known; usually, the hero proves to be on a mission of vengeance, to kill those who killed his wife. He and his small group of travelling companions, thrown together by accident, have to contend with various hazards: bandits, Indians, etc. The films develop, in Andrew Sarris’s words, into ‘floating poker games, where every character takes turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown’. The hero expresses a ‘weary serenity’, has a constant patient grin and willingness to brew up a pot of coffee, which disarms each adversary in turn as he is prised away from the others. Finally, after the showdown, the hero rides off again through the same rounded rocks, still alone, certainly with no exaltation after his victory.
At first sight, these westerns are no more than extremely conservative exercises in a kind of western which has been outdated. This impression is strengthened by Randolph Scott’s resemblance to William Hart, noted immediately by Bazin. The westerns of Ince and Hart were simple moral confrontations, in which good vanquished evil; since then, the western has been enriched by more complex sociological and psychological themes. John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) already presaged new developments, which he himself was to carry through: the western became the key genre for the creation of a popular myth of American society and history. Today, westerns as diverse as Penn’s The Left-handed Gun, almost a psychological study of delinquency, or Fuller’s Run of the Arrow have completely transformed the genre. Bazin saw, in Boetticher and Anthony Mann, a parallel tendency towards the increasingly subtle refinement of the pristine form of the genre; it cannot be denied that there was a strain of nostalgia for innocence in his attitude. In fact, Boetticher’s works are something more than Bazin’s expressions of ‘classicism’, the ‘essence’ of a tradition, undistracted by intellectualism, symbolism, baroque formalism, etc. The classical form which he chooses is the form which best fits his themes: it presents an a-historical world in which each man is master of his own individual destiny. And it is the historic crisis of individualism which is crucial to Boetticher’s preoccupations and his vision of the world.
‘I am not interested in making films about mass feelings. I am for the individual.’ The central problem in Boetticher’s films is the problem of the individual in an age—increasingly collectivized—in which individualism is no longer at all self-evident, in which individual action is increasingly problematic and the individual no longer conceived as a
Boetticher has made only one war film, Red Ball Express, with which he was extremely dissatisfied. He later contrasted the western ‘in which individuals (the story must be kept very personal) accept to face dangers in which they risk death, in order to achieve a definite goal’ with the war film ‘in which armies are flung into danger and destruction by destiny and at the command of the countries involved in the war’.
‘In other words, I prefer my films to be based on heroes who want to do what they are doing, despite the danger and the risk of death. . . In war, nobody wants to die and I hate making films about people who are forced to do such and such a thing.’ Courage in war is not authentic courage, because it is not authentically chosen; it is a desperate reaction. The same point comes out in The Man from the Alamo, about a Texan who leaves the Alamo just before the famous battle; he is branded a coward and a deserter. But for Boetticher he shows more courage than those who stayed; he made an individual choice to leave, to try and save his family in their border farmstead. He risked his life—and his repute—for a precise, personal goal rather than stay, under the pressure of mass feeling, to fight for a collective cause. He is a typical Boetticher hero. ‘He did his duty, which was as difficult and dangerous for him as for those who stayed.’ (In the same vein, Boetticher speaks of Shakespeare’s Henry V and of the scene in which the king goes round the camp the night before the battle, when Shakespeare raises the whole issue of the personal involvement of the soldiers in the king’s war.)